Metro Phoenix Remains an "Oasis" in the Age of Drought-Shaming — But Change Is Coming

An excessive-heat warning is predicted
for metro Phoenix on a day in early August, with a high of 111 anticipated. At noon, only a few people are strolling the residential streets of Tempe near Arizona State University.

Yet in spite of the intense heat, and in seeming defiance of the longest-running drought in modern Arizona history, Daley Park, off College Avenue just south of ASU, literally is full of water.

Clear, cool water gurgles up from an underground valve, rippling the sunlit surface of the artificial lake forming in the middle of the park.

Picnic tables stand over their reflections, surrounded by leafy non-native trees and a raucous group of birds enjoying the life-sustaining liquid. A small stream runs down a street gutter, the wasted overflow from a stand of palm trees and grass getting irrigated simultaneously in front of a church across the street. Excess water also pools in a landscaped rock garden next to the sidewalk.

This slice of paradise sprouting incongruously in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, a place legendary for its extreme temperatures and dryness, is typical for the oasis known as metro Phoenix — even in times of severe drought.

Countless grass lawns cover the yards of homes, businesses, and government properties in the Valley of the Sun. Examples of this desert city not looking very much like a desert abound.

Just north of Daley Park, ASU exhibits laudable examples of low-water-use landscaping — along with lush non-native plants and trees and fields of merely decorative grass.
Tempe, of course, keeps nearly a billion gallons of Salt River Project canal water in a concrete-lined playground known as Town Lake. Big oaks, classic figs, citrus trees, palm groves, flower gardens, and non-native bushes help distinguish the residential neighborhoods in downtown Tempe, Central Phoenix, Arcadia, and older sections of Glendale and Scottsdale. Mesa and Gilbert each count several man-made lakes. Swimming pools and golf courses are an integral part of the landscape.

In the summer, heat-resistant Bermuda grass, the first choice for many local businesses and residents, becomes verdant and soft. For irrigated properties, the flood comes every two weeks during the hot season and once a month in winter. Unirrigated foliage must be sprinkled often in this climate.

Letting the Bermuda go yellow in the winter doesn’t work for thousands of homeowners, either: They keep winter lawns of rich, green rye grass with the use of hundreds of gallons of sprinkled potable water.

Outdoor watering accounts for about 50 percent of the Valley’s total water use. True, not everyone in Phoenix has landscaping that requires lots of watering. Air travelers (or Google Earth users) know that from above, the Valley looks much browner and drier than most U.S. cities. With environmentalism, the drought, and climate change on the minds of many residents, some have switched to low-water-use xeriscaping.

But water’s cheap, and there are almost no restrictions on how it can be used in the Valley.

Post-World War II metro Phoenix never has been under the type of water restrictions now common in other states. Here, unlike in Denver or Los Angeles, you can wash your SUV three times a day — even install a rice paddy on your property if you want. The lack of restrictions is reflected in the culture, one in which small rivers of irrigation run down streets and car-washing or over-watering aren’t seen by residents as a big deal.

Meanwhile, on Arizona’s western border, California is gripped in a full-on water crisis. Wells and canals are dry, and the entire state was ordered by Governor Jerry Brown to save 25 percent more water than last year.

Billboards along Interstate 10 and elsewhere in California try to persuade residents to let their lawns go brown and to take shorter showers.

“Drought is on: Water less and before dawn” warns an ad from Los Angeles County.

The Southern California Water Committee and Clear Channel Outdoor sponsor a series of billboards featuring the cartoon character “Lawn Dude,” who tells people, “I only drink twice a week” and “Don’t hose me, man!”

The most noticeable message has been on social media, where “drought-shaming” has reached epic proportions. Snitching on neighbors and other perceived water wasters by posting pictures — and even addresses — on Twitter and YouTube practically has become sport. The #droughtshaming hashtag, for instance, receives updates from users almost hourly. Usually, a picture or short video of an emerald green lawn getting sprinkled excessively accompanies the snitcher’s post, which may contain snark or profanity.

“My neighbor wasting water in Hayford Rd in @SanDiegoCounty,” wrote Danny, posting a picture of a guy in shorts washing a black Audi.

“Whhyyy are you ignorant fucks still watering your lawn?!?” another woman openly wondered on the page.

Cities and businesses also are frequent targets.

“@santamonica uses water hoses to clean sidewalks because brooms won’t do,” a user calling himself “Swetz” wrote, posting a picture of a city worker using a pressure hose.
“#droughtshaming in Carson, California,” Twitter user “Wavellan” wrote in late July to caption a picture of an array of sprinklers in front of a building: “Tons of water down the drain. Idiots.”

The news media began covering drought-shaming in earnest this summer, resulting in more attention on the activity. When Vancouver, Canada, went to stage three drought restrictions in mid-July, limiting car-washing and lawn-watering, the drought-shaming culture followed immediately with a popular hashtag, #grassholes, which has seen multiple daily shaming postings.

California seems to have made drought-shaming official with a website encouraging people to inform on their neighbors by anonymously submitting specific complaints and photos. Local governments and utilities also are sponsoring an ad campaign that involves stenciling shaming reminders on sidewalks with a resin that remains invisible until its gets wet.

Offenders from outside California and from Canada show up occasionally on drought-shaming Internet forums.

Sasa Woodruff of Los Angeles went to a wedding this summer in Phoenix, then drought-shamed the Arizona Grand Hotel with a video showing pools, fountains, lakes, and acres of grass at the resort.

“I was shocked at how little regard there was to water-conversation public awareness,” she tells New Times.

She’s not alone in this sentiment: Environmentalists long have complained that Valley residents waste water.

That the entire Phoenix region could use some drought-shaming.

Here, a 21-year drought has been classified
as “moderate” to “extreme” over time. This year, man-made reservoirs are only about half-full following a lackluster winter snowpack. A potential shortage of the Colorado River water supply looms.

But for most of the state, there are no water restrictions for people or businesses and no pervasive drought-shaming.

The idea of the Valley as a well-watered oasis persists, and things probably won’t change anytime soon — even as water managers tell us that change eventually will be forced upon us.

Three main reasons metro Phoenix has escaped the drought-shaming craze exist. The first is lack of official water restrictions.

Though the Western drought grabs more headlines than ever, almost nothing has changed for Arizona residents. Even in water-challenged Tucson and Flagstaff, residents haven’t been under emergency provisions because there’s no emergency in Arizona. Most cities have water-wasting ordinances, and you can call these cities to report a neighbor or business that appears to be violating them. But there are no fines for unintentional violations, and there is minimal enforcement.

Restrictions on outdoor watering would educate metro Phoenix residents about conservation, but fear abounds that such rules would stymie lucrative population growth.

tweet this
In metro Phoenix, where waste is tolerated, inefficient watering practices — like soaking your sidewalk as much as your grass or washing your Beamer every other day — are seen as normal. To some extent, this attitude infects drier Arizona towns, too, though drought-shaming is an embedded trait in some neighborhoods. (In many parts of Tucson, for example, a homeowner who rolled in carpets of sod to replace cholla and prickly pear probably would be vilified by neighbors, even though no Tucson ordinance or state law could prevent the action.)

Though the average single-family household in Tucson tops out at using less than 9,000 gallons monthly in the summer, according to the city’s website, statistics obtained by New Times show that average use by families in and around Phoenix in June, July, and August begins at more than 9,000 gallons and rises strikingly from there.

Of 54 ZIP codes that Phoenix is responsible for watering, 22 have single-family homes with a typical monthly water use in the summer of more than 15,000 gallons, on average. In seven ZIP codes — some with a stock of older homes, others with larger lots — they use about 20,000 gallons a month or more. Properties in the lush 85251 area of Scottsdale, which encompasses Arcadia and Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash Park, have a peak average of more than 40,000 gallons, while properties in 85253 in Paradise Valley top out at more than 70,000 gallons.

The culture and lack of official requirements for property owners stem from the idea — astonishing to some — that Arizona has plenty of water.

In fact, thanks to careful planning by local leaders on the all-important issue, the state has more than enough water for the 6 million people who live here, plus their various personal and industrial activities.

As we reported in our December 18, 2013, cover story, “Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated,” most water managers assert that Arizona not only can withstand ongoing drought, but will continue to grow during it.

While some parts of the state will struggle more than others, the Phoenix area is uniquely situated to last.

It was the site of the one of the largest, longest-lasting, and most technologically advanced Native American civilizations in North and South America, the Hohokam. And though the reasons behind the end of the Hohokam period around 1450 still aren’t well understood, the collapse isn’t thought to be directly connected to an extensive drought that had occurred about a century earlier. (Other climatic events, like severe floods, haven’t been ruled out.)

Arizona and Phoenix can weather the higher temperatures and dwindling water supplies resulting from climate change. Indeed, Phoenix and most cities in Arizona are here to stay. But they’re definitely in for a change.

Water experts, for our 2013 article and for this one, say it’s unlikely the state will see any water-supply crises — the oasis will look good, in other words — for about 50 years.

After that, demand from millions of expected new residents will exceed supply. Various parts of Arizona will see shortages before then. Even the Valley, with its multiple water supplies, eventually could be hurting like California is now and facing extreme water-use mandates.

Arizona’s current annual water demand is about 6.9 million acre-feet per year. (One acre-foot equals 325,900 gallons and, as the name suggests, covers an acre of land one-foot deep.) The demand is expected to rise to more than 8.2 million acre-feet by 2035 and more than 8.6 million by 2060, according to a 2014 state report. But this extra water isn’t actually available now.

“Arizona could be facing a water-supply imbalance between projected demands and water supply availability approaching 1 million acre-feet in the next 25 to 50 years,” states the report Arizona’s Next Century: A Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability.

New supplies must be found, the report says, such as water currently slated for agriculture, reclaimed water and groundwater now considered too expensive to treat, water held in new man-made reservoirs, water from cloud seeding, or desalinated ocean water piped into Arizona.

“Pursuit of long-term options will require sustained investment and commitment by Arizona’s policy and business leaders,” the report says. “To avoid economic disruption, these efforts must begin immediately.”

The report, prepared by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, actually uses the word “immediately” twice on this point.

A series by the online investigative publication ProPublica last month argued that the imbalance may come sooner than officials say because groundwater and surface water often are part of the same natural water systems, but essentially are counted twice by state authorities, as if they weren’t connected.

Arizona water officials acknowledge that the water situation could be worse than their conservative projections. But they’re betting on their generally rosy predictions for the next few decades and sticking with the idea that Valley residents shouldn’t be burdened with restrictions.

Because of the billions of dollars involved in keeping this area humming, it seems probable that our leaders will figure out something.

Whatever shape these options take, or indeed whether the options fail to coalesce and leave the region in crisis, there’s no serious talk so far that Valley residents will have to personally do anything to acknowledge either the unending drought or the state’s growth-driven water issues.

The drought in California is very real.

Temperatures are rising, snow on the mountains is minimal, rivers are flowing at dramatically low rates, wells are drying up, and homes in some parts of rural California are left without running water.

As scientists discovered a few years ago, predictions made early last century about the population capacity of the American West had relied on weather readings from a wetter-than-average period. For hundreds of years, the West was drier than what American pioneers believed was the norm, experts now acknowledge.

Yet California is not without water — not by a long shot. Nearly all the problems caused by the drought are man-made, and the decisions people have made about how to use a limited water supply have far greater effects on humans than the drought itself.

Few people understand this dual nature of drought problems better than Ted Sheely, chairman of Cotton Incorporated and owner of a 960-acre farm he runs with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. They grow garlic, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cantaloupes, and cotton.

“For two months out of the year, 95 percent of the [country’s] iceberg lettuce comes from my area,” he says.

Sheely, 63, is a University of Arizona graduate who moved to California in 1974, became successful in agriculture, and turned to political activism. He’s argued — most recently in a Wall Street Journal guest column — that environmentalists have tied up too much of the state’s water for wildlife and the habitat, exacerbating the effects of the drought.

He’s tired of Californians pointing at farming as the cause of their pain, he tells New Times.

To combat the fifth year of extreme drought, Governor Brown signed an order April 1 mandating that all municipalities reduce water use by 25 percent. The plan saved a lot of water — in June, the warmest on record in California, state residents exceeded the goal by saving 27 percent of their water compared with June 2013, officials said.
Drought-shaming no doubt contributed to the successful conservation drive.

But as critics tend to point out, the savings don’t add up to much in the greater scheme of things because, according to an oft-cited statistic, 80 percent of the available water is used in farming. News stories have emphasized that not all of California’s farms grow food, that billions of gallons of water are used each year to grow alfalfa sent to China.

Sheely says this is not quite true. “The environment gets 100 percent” of about half of the surface water in California,” he says.” The other half — much of which comes from Sierra Nevada snowpack — is collected in reservoirs, streams, lakes, canals, and aqueducts and is treated for use by humans. He calls this the “developed water.” He says he pays fees for this to maintain dams and other infrastructure.

Usually, his farm relies only on surface water: “We use the California aqueduct as the conduit. We’ve gotten zero percent supply out of that the last two years. We had to resort to using underground water, and at the rate we’re pumping, it’s not sustainable.”

He’s let 35 percent of his farm go dry and unused, he says.

Sheely says agriculture actually uses about 40 percent of the state’s water, while another 40 percent is put back into the environment — into streams and lakes, typically — because of conservation laws put in place over the years. He’d like to see these laws changed to address California’s drought pain.

“I’m hoping my state and government will start looking at what the environment is doing with the water taken from me,” he says.

Asked whether it’s realistic to take more water from the environment and endangered riparian species, Sheely claims he doesn’t want to hurt habitats. But he argues that the unintended consequences of environmental laws protecting certain species are affecting the economy by damaging “the fruit basket of the United States.”

George Kostyrko, spokesman for California’s State Water Resources Control Board, says Sheely’s statistics on water use by farms and the environment are correct.

This means, Sheely’s political stance aside, substantial changes made to the amount of water used by California farms or for wildlife conservation efforts would have huge effects on the state’s water shortage, caused by too many demands and not enough supply. Nature isn’t cooperating, but neither did nature intend for 38 million people, countless businesses, and the “fruit basket” of the country to locate in one of the driest parts of the continent.

Though only one-fifth of California’s water is committed to urban uses, state officials are determined to save as much of that as possible, even if it means inconvenience for residents.

Kostyrko strongly defends the state’s newest way to keep water use low, savewater.ca.gov. The site is tied to a robust water-information system that’s expected to be around long after the current crisis passes (if it passes). An online forum allows people to notify anonymously about suspected water-restriction violations and send pictures as evidence. The state doesn’t want to call it a drought-shaming site.

“We’re not using the phrase that other folks have come up with,” Kostyrko says.

“At the end of the day, water conservation has to occur on a local level,” he says, adding that 50 percent to 80 percent of urban water in California is used for outdoor landscaping.

Not all areas in California have the same restrictions, but in some places, a violation such as watering a lawn multiple times a day results in a $500 fine, he says.

Reports from the new website will be matched with local water departments, which share the power to enforce drought mandates. The new system collects and analyzes data from the state’s many local districts like never before, he touts. When complaints come in about water districts that aren’t signed up with the system, officials track down the responsible water managers and make sure they get necessary information, Kostyrko says.

“We’re trying to change behaviors in California,” he says. “The most cost-effective way to have storage for the future is to conserve water now . . . the website is just a tool.”

In Arizona, goes the rationale,
there’s plenty of water so we don’t need restrictions or serious conservation measures until an emergency strikes.

Water conservation is built into Phoenix’s way of life, experts say, especially since the passage of laws that protect groundwater and require developers to show that a new housing project would, in theory, have a 100-year water supply.

Urban water use accounts for about 30 percent of the available water in Arizona, with most of the rest going to agriculture. Not much of the precious supply goes back to the environment, unlike in California. In March of last year, a pulse of extra water intended to help trees and wildlife was sent down the Colorado River as a first-time experiment.

The state exists precisely because its limited water supply has been carefully managed and utilized. Even now, though, two decades into the worst drought in Arizona history, the state’s not doing badly in terms of its water supply.

This is surprising, if the white “bathtub ring” around Lake Mead is any indication.

The lake, fed by the Colorado River, supplies water to Las Vegas, California, and — through the CAP canal, which stretches all the way to Tucson — Arizona.

The ring isn’t quite what it seems, because the lake’s surface never has been at the top of the ring. But the feature is growing bigger every year, and in late June, it set another record low, going under 1,075 feet. This is the level that could trigger a reduction in the water received from the river by Arizona, a junior partner in water agreements. While a higher level than 1,075 is predicted by the end of this year, many experts think it will go lower than that next year — so the state is bracing for the supply to be cut in 2017.

However, the message from CAP to state residents essentially is: Don’t worry, because it’s not going to affect you much, if at all.

The possible shortage in 2017 will reduce CAP’s Arizona share of 1.6 million acre-feet by 320,000 acre-feet, with additional cuts necessary in subsequent years if Mead falls below trigger points of 1,050 and 1,025 feet, which is seen as probable.

Farmers may have to pump more groundwater, which in turn wouldn’t be replenished, as it is now. But don’t call it a crisis, CAP says: “With the exception of a potential increase in CAP water rates, Arizona’s cities, towns, industries, mines, and tribes using CAP water will not be affected by a near-term shortage.”

This is good for such projects as the Resolution Copper Mine near Superior, which will use CAP water at the annual rate of nearly half of the entire city of Tempe. Of course, it’s very good for the state, which relies heavily on Colorado River water so that it can avoid pumping plentiful, but exhaustible, groundwater.

Not including most parts of the Valley, nearly one-third of the state’s water supply comes from the CAP canal. Another 21 percent comes from other surface water sources, 4 percent from reclaimed effluent, and 43 percent from groundwater, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, showing the reliance on CAP.

But the picture in Phoenix and much of the Valley is different.

Phoenix statistics show that 50 percent of the city’s water comes from Salt River Project-managed reservoirs west of the 104-year-old Roosevelt Dam. Forty-four percent comes from CAP, while groundwater and reclaimed water each accounts for 3 percent of the total. (Many golf courses and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station use reclaimed water.)

SRP encourages people to conserve in its marketing materials, but one of its slogans, “Enough to use, not enough to waste,” implies that the Valley’s oasis culture is just fine. Charlie Ester, SRP manager of water-resource operations, comes out and says it.

“We’re not in a crisis situation so why should we impact people’s quality of lives, the economic driver of the economy?” he says.

Using water to make Phoenix more lush with grass and trees “does not put our future supply in jeopardy at this time,” he says.

Citing another common statistic, Ester notes that the Valley’s water demand has dropped 20 percent in the past 25 years, despite massive population growth. The reason is the installation of water-efficient plumbing and landscaping.

He also acknowledges that dramatic savings of urban-use water could be achieved if Phoenicians stopped watering their yards as frequently.

“Our reservoirs would [have more water], and there would be more water underground,” he says.

But he notes that the savings would be small overall because they would make up only a fraction of the outdoor urban use, which is half of the total urban use, which is 30 percent of the total water used in the state.

He sees the current Valley water situation continuing as it is now for at least another 20 years. At some point, he says, echoing the 2014 state warning, Arizona’s population will deplete existing water supplies.

If developing new water supplies doesn’t work, the state could choose to let large portions of the agricultural community go away, dipping into the 70 percent.

At that point, perhaps, Phoenix residents might be willing to listen to advice from the likes of Southern California’s Lawn Dude.

Tucson, highly dependent on dwindling groundwater supplies,
began a conservation push in the 1970s that gave it the look of a desert city.

“You can’t tell where the city begins and the desert ends,” proponents of the oasis model complain, stressing that Phoenix should be different, says Fernando Molina, spokesman for Tucson Water.

But Tucson residents see the criticism as a compliment, he says.

The city continues to have water problems but has cut back personal use substantially, as the average monthly numbers for single-family houses show. These days, only about 25 percent of residential water in Tucson is used for outdoor landscaping.

“One reason we don’t have lawn-watering restrictions is that we don’t have a lot of lawns,” he says.

Still, some communities have decided that residents should change their ways — even when water conservation isn’t crucial. Denver is a prime example.

The Mile High City put a range of restrictions on property owners following a drought crisis in 2002. Denver’s Board of Water Commissioners, which has authority over Colorado’s water departments, then made the mandates permanent.

Summer restrictions include a ban on watering more than three days a week or between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Properties can’t be irrigated when it’s raining, and broken sprinklers must be fixed within 10 days.

Letting a hose gush while soaping up your car is unlawful, as is letting water cover your sidewalk or run uselessly down the street.

Fines or water shutoffs for repeat offenders are rare because most Denver residents understand the reasons behind the conservation campaign, says Travis Thompson, spokesman for Denver Water. The city issued 23 fines in 2013 but none last year.

While the restrictions do change slightly from year to year, some always are in place regardless of the city’s actual water supply, he says.

“This year, the water supply is in good shape,” he says. “We don’t know how long that’s going to last. Using water wisely needs to be part of our culture.”

Putting Denver-style water restrictions on Valley households or businesses, just on principle, could send a strong message to the rest of the country, which already perceives Arizona to be running out of water.

In that event, the all-important growth industry in the Valley — seen as vital to the economy — might slow considerably.

To the Sierra Club’s Sandy Bahr, this would be a bonus to conservation efforts. She and other environmentalists long have complained that the growth sector, to which up to 70 percent of the state’s economy is tied, is unsustainable and wrecking wildlands and air quality. On a basic level, the oasis model of Phoenix simply is dishonest, she argues.

Basic landscape-watering restrictions “are a way for people to recognize that we live in the Sonoran Desert,” she says, adding that she despises the idea “that there is something inherently bad about the Sonoran Desert so we have to add water to make it something else.”

Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, agrees that metro Phoenix should mandate water restrictions now, even if they’re not needed and would reduce overall water use by only a fraction.

Projections that show potential water shortages in Arizona’s future keep getting revised more into the near term, he says. The CAP shortage predicted for 2017 once was thought by officials to be unlikely until long after that, he says.

“We take a very irresponsible approach to water management,” Serraglio says, countering claims by water managers that they’ve done an outstanding job. Restrictions on outdoor landscaping in Arizona have to change, he says.

Sure, a change would have little real effect on the water supply, compared to cuts in such an agricultural and industrial use, but Serraglio notes that changing minds about water conservation has worked in Denver.

Last month, climate experts observed
with excitement that the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean is heating up. It’s a major signal that the El Niño/Southern Oscillation Cycle is strong (and probably will remain so) heading into winter.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a 90 percent chance now exists that the El Niño effect — which typically delivers heavier-than-average snow and rain — will carry through the winter and an 80 percent chance exists that it will hang on until spring. Californians hope it brings the water they need to end the shortage.

In Arizona, winter and spring snow and rain will alleviate drought conditions and possibly add enough water to Lake Mead to avoid a Colorado River shortage in 2017.

This year could mark Arizona’s fifth consecutive winter with below-average rainfall. But it would be unusual if it happens, SRP’s Ester says.

A tree-ring study showed that no five-year period has been without one good, wet winter for the past 800 years. This fact and the strengthening El Niño cycle give Ester the optimism to declare that this winter will see above-average precipitation. He acknowledges that it makes him uneasy to make such a prediction.

But in a desert, where the lives of millions of residents are tied to a dry climate, optimism is all we have.

If the Salt River reservoirs were full and it didn’t rain again, Ester is asked, how long would it be before there is a water emergency in the Valley?

His answer: Three to four years.

This might seem like a great reason to put limits on the farming, population growth, and the amount of fresh water Valley residents get to feed the thirsty non-native plants in their yards.

But it always has rained.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.